In it's finest form, tennis can be more a chess match than a slugfest. When two equally impressive athletes compete in a duel of wills to see who can outwit whom, it becomes a "thinking man's" game with strategy trumping strength. It's been two years since we last stepped onto center court, and 2K Sports has spent a lot of that time revamping their previous installment. They have done a wonderful job capturing the passion and skill of tennis, but it's not without its faults (sorry for the bad pun).
You can jump into an exhibition match right from the word go and play with a pretty impressive roster of real-life talent, both past and present. The top four on the men's side are present: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray, along with other notable players. Serena Williams, Dinara Safina, and Anna Ivanovic highlight the women. I love that classic stars are present like Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, and my personal favorite, Boris Becker. You can even play against Bjorn Borg, complete with long hair and headband!
The real draw of Top Spin 4 is being able to create your own 'player' and enter the professional tour. No matter which mode you use your player in, you'll gain experience points be it exhibition, 'King of the Court' (billed as a party mode for playing with friends), career, or even online play. The character creator is among the more sophisticated I've seen. If you go into 'Expert' editor you can alter your appearance point by point (think the dots you've seen on actors faces when they’re doing facial motion capture for CGI effects in movies), but it can be a bit hyper sensitive. One little twitch and your cheeks go from gaunt to chipmunk! It's amusingly ironic that the achievement for creating your character is titled "It's Alive" because you can create some real monsters with this one! I must have spent a good fifteen minutes moving the sliders around just to see what I could come up with... the end result could have worked as a double on The Hills Have Eyes.
I can never get my avatar to look much like me anyway, but I don't feel too bad because the professional players who lent their likenesses will probably wince when they see their avatars. All the big names are instantly recognizable, but there is definitely a wax-sculpture feel going on. The eyes especially look a little... odd. Anyway, from there you can choose your player's style, right down to swing animations (although those were sadly limited) and there are plenty of choices when it comes to your outfits and equipment.
Once you've created your monster... er, player, it's off to school! The Top Spin 4 'Academy' cleverly runs you through all the different shots and techniques you'll use. Just like with real tennis, it's all about the fundamentals. Gone are the arcade-like mini-games that have plagued the genre, this time it's taken much more seriously. There are 26 different training sessions in all, but it's the fact that emphasis is put on learning how to play properly that’s important.
If you've played Top Spin 3 you know the controls took some getting used to and were often finicky. In an effort to reach a wider audience, 2K has dialed back the difficulty and mapped shots back to the face buttons. You can hit flat shots, topspins, slices and lobs. This new control scheme allows anyone to pick up and play, and it's pretty responsive. Power shots are much easier to pull off this time around. You do still have the option for analog serving, which once you get the hang of it is definitely the way to go.
There are lots of in-game 'helpers' like an X on the court showing where the ball will bounce, how much power you are going to put on the shot, etc. It makes it more accessible for the casual fan. Of course, if you think it's too easy you can always turn them off; you do thankfully have that ability.
As good as the controls are (even with the helpers on), tennis is all about precision and finesse. Controlling some of the more advanced techniques can be difficult. Drop shots, just like in real life, are pretty risky. The same goes with the serve. Aces are hard to come by; you really need to paint the lines. Serve and volley isn't nearly as effective a strategy as it has been in the past, which mirrors modern tennis. Controlling volleys can be frustratingly difficult to get the timing right. It's the same thing with return of serve. I feel like I'm pushing the ball right back up the middle even on soft serves if I don't get the timing just right. Passing shots are tough, but oddly its way too easy to lob someone at the net... it doesn't happen like that in real life.
There are three fundamental styles of play that you can upgrade as you progress: serve and volley, baseline offensive, and baseline defensive. I get why 2K dumbed it down, but what bugs me is that you can't upgrade individual strokes like your forehand, backhand or serve. I find this odd considering how many of the pros (and amateurs) will often have one particular shot they rely on... like Andy Roddick's serve or Federer's forehand. Sure, these guys can hit all the shots, but to say they don't play to their strengths is patently false.
You are able to hire coaches who give passive bonus upgrades if you complete certain tasks while on the court. There are different levels of coaches: gold, silver, and bronze. Each coach will have four goals for you. These can be anything like hitting 50 forehands, or serving 5 aces. Completing them might give bonus XP for hitting clean winners from the baseline or maybe +7 points to your forehand, it's specific to each coach. Just remember when you change coaches you don't get to keep their bonuses, you have to start over and work your way back up.
The problem I have with this is similar to my issue with FIFA 11. Instead of giving credit where it's due based on the performance you put in on the pitch (or in this case, the court), you have to complete certain achievements to upgrade your player. While it's not a bad system per se, you may find yourself, as I did, focusing on completing these arbitrary chores instead of playing naturally. One of my mentors wanted me to hit 10 'inside-out' shots. I nearly lost a match because too often I attempted to run around a shot when it wasn't a sound strategy. Having a set of discretionary goals takes something away from just playing the game and that's a problem.
Once you graduate from school you're out on tour. Every month you can train and then play in one tournament. Training consists of playing a short match with a 'sparring' partner. During these sessions you can earn bonus XP by completing certain goals during a particular game. Hitting three winners in one game is an example, or maybe you need to win a point with a lob shot against a serve and volley opponent. After you progress a bit, win some matches and get noticed, you'll be invited to attend events instead. Some of these are purely text based where you might make an appearance at a nightclub to garner more fans. Maybe you'll attend an intensive training camp for a certain amount of XP. I even had the option of a yoga weekend!
When it comes to the tournaments, you'll usually have a couple of options. Not all will be available at first; you need to qualify for them. You have career goals that involve playing in a certain number of tournaments at a certain level, winning tournaments, and having an ever-increasing fan base. By progressing up the ladder and completing these assignments, you'll be eligible for the more prestigious tournaments and playing against tougher (and more recognizable) opposition. This mirrors real life fairly accurately. Keep winning and eventually you'll be able to play in the Grand Slam events against the best in the world!
Aside from the... "interesting" looking players you can create and the waxy look of their real life counter parts, I was impressed with Top Spin 4's graphics. The on-court animations are excellent; fluid, realistic, and varied. Sliding on the clay even kicks up little puffs of ocher colored dust. That said the cutscene celebrations and player entrances get recycled pretty early on.
The physics are also first rate. You can practically feel the weight of the ball against the strings, and the skid of a sharp slice. When you really catch a hold of one you'll know it's a clean winner from the moment it leaves your racquet. The momentum of your player has become a greater factor this time around as well, a welcome change from previous titles where turning on a dime didn't slow your player at all, and certainly doesn't result in rolled ankles the way it would on a real hard court.
While I enjoyed playing Top Spin 4, the tennis player/fan in me wonders if it's really true to the sport. One big question mark for me was the infrequency of unforced errors. Missing shots, even the mistimed ones, is part of tennis. Here it's almost unrealistically rare. Same with missing serves and double faults. If you just press the button, it's guaranteed to go in. The opposite is true for power shots. They are too easy to pull off. I feel like the risk/reward should be more balanced. If it were more sensitive, if going for the lines were more perilous, we might be less inclined to go for every shot.
And don't get me started on your opponents serve speed! Up until you get to the top level they aren't even remotely realistic. Andy Roddick ain't gonna be floating in 80 MPH first serves! Come to think of it, it really seems like your opponent's AI levels to you. It's not until you've maxed out your player that playing against the top stars in the world really feels like a challenge.
This leads to my biggest issue: Top Spin 4 is too easy. I'm a pretty big tennis fan and I used to play quite often. I wasn't great, not even close, but I knew how to play. It's crucial to know how to slow down play to get yourself back into position or the right moment to rush the net; when to go for the killer blow or delicate drop shot. If you know what you're supposed to do then maneuvering your opponents out of position to set up a quick finish is almost depressingly easy. Fortunately, you do have the option of changing difficulty level mid-career if you want more of a challenge.
I still find the lack of commentary disappointing. I know it would be hard to pull off, but at least during replays it would be nice to hear a little bit about what just happened. I got pretty tired of hearing "Game, set, match... PLAYER 1." Just about every other sports game has recognizable names, this one should as well. Because of this shortfall, Top Spin 4 lacks personality. It doesn't get boring as such, but maybe stale is the better word. It feels cheap and drags you back from your ability to suspend disbelief.
Speaking of suspending disbelief, while they've done a good job securing the licenses for most of the major tournaments, Wimbledon is still noticeably absent. Considering that The Masters finally caved and is in the new Tiger Woods game, I think the All England Club needs to get on the bus... The Dublin Open (I'm not joking) just doesn't have the same panache.
Top Spin 4 has been a lesson in ambivalence for me. I liked it, but couldn't overlook some of its flaws. But the truth is, Top Spin 4 is probably the best tennis game that's been made to date. It's fun to play, and pretty satisfying to blast winners and watch your opponent throw up his (or her) hands in frustration. Tennis fans that are also gamers don't need any convincing, but 2K has done an admirable job of making the fundamentals of the sport more accessible to the casual fan. It may even drive a few people to pick up a racquet and... dare I say it... go outside. For those of us with bum shoulders (from playing too much bloody tennis apparently), this is a perfectly viable alternative.